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Reconsidering The Way We Do Student Internships

Startups thrive on new ideas: from democratising transport through ride-sharing apps, to online marketplaces that collate brands, to e-commerce platforms that render a one-stop shopping experience in the comforts of your own home. These are all valuable business models that exist today precisely because of simple yet brilliant and original ideas.

For more and more startups, this means welcoming interns into their organisation.

Putting young, trained thinkers in the same spectrum that crafts those original ideas makes for quite a powerful workforce. The economy thrives on the energy and dexterity of the young to breathe life into these ideas, and there is a need to integrate their perspectives in order to effectively find solutions in a fast-paced world—fit for a young and energetic market.

Internships are not new — thousands of students across Southeast Asia seek to participate in such programmes in order to fulfill graduation requirements at school. Today, the rise of startup companies across the region gives students the opportunity to make bigger and more meaningful contributions to the companies they intern at. Many even end up working for these startups or founding their own companies.

Every day, Darren Ng works on finding practical solutions to some basic yet important business problems. A final-year student at the Singapore Management University (SMU), he honed his entrepreneurial mindset and skills while interning at MyCloudFulfillment in Bangkok, Thailand.

As an intern, he was able to broaden his understanding of business operations and contribute fresh perspectives. “Having interned at a corporate setup before, I realised I had limited learning experience,” shares Ng, who believes that the common practice of assigning mundane tasks to interns can be a waste of potential.

“Interning with startups has enabled me to get exposure to different aspects of a business. During my stint with MyCloudFulfillment, I was given tasks ranging from finance to business development. This experience allowed me to better understand how a company is run, the challenges of scaling, and the need to have an edge over big players.”

While most internship programmes partner with local businesses, SMU’s Global Innovation Immersion (GII), organised by the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, has a global reach. The programmme provides an experiential learning experience for students to expand their innovation networks, as well as strengthen their entrepreneurial skill-sets in global innovation hotspots.

Students like Ng, who are admitted into the programme, undergo a 12-week internship with a venture-backed startup in countries across Southeast Asia, China, Europe, and America. In the past four years, SMU has flown some 184 students to 89 companies across 12 global cities through the GII programme. The university pre-screens its pool of innovative and entrepreneurial talent to ensure a good fit. This also ensures that SMU interns are able to contribute meaningfully to make a bigger impact than to simply help ease the administrative workload in startups.

She was initially apprehensive about accepting the internship in the Philippines, as the country was not as well-known for its startup ecosystem. However, she was pleasantly surprised that Kalibrr actually had the distinction of being the first Philippine startup to be admitted to Y Combinator, perhaps the most renowned accelerator globally. In addition, the experience of a different culture afforded Teo a better appreciation of the country’s rising startup and entrepreneurship scene.

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“Living with my colleagues allowed me to appreciate the Filipino culture and the challenges faced by the nation. These experiences left me with numerous observations about entrepreneurship and innovation in the Philippines,” she says.

Mr. Pak Surya, Principal of Portfolio for Kejora Ventures in Jakarta, expressed that it is important for Singaporeans to be plugged into the startup scene, since Singapore has always been a technology hub in the region.

“If students want to start a business,” Surya said,” you would first need to find out the value proposition of a business model. Working in Indonesia or other countries require an open mind.”

Diversity and fresh perspectives

Students and aspiring startup founders are not the only ones who benefit from international internship programmes. For many companies, diversity is a crucial component to their workforce as it brings about fresh perspectives. This is one of the reasons why SMU’s Global Innovation Immersion was established.

“The experience from SMU interns has been important to neoBay as we would like to create a global innovation hub within our community. It is important to be exposed to different backgrounds and cultures,” says Dr. Zhang Zhi Gang, CEO of neoBay, headquartered in Shanghai.

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JustCo, a Jakarta-based company, highly appreciates their intern, SMU School of Social Sciences Year 2 student, Darren Yeo Tian Sen, for being eager to take up any opportunity and for connecting well with their partners. Over at JustCo, Yeo is treated “as an equal, just like our own employee,” recounted by JustCo Jakarta Marketing Manager, Anggie Mokoginta.

Mokoginta shared that during Yeo’s time at JustCo, he was given the autonomy and authority to approach the company’s partners. Mokoginta remarks that “GII is a very good programme, and we look forward to partnering with SMU again next year. The startup scene in Indonesia is one of the largest in Southeast Asia. I feel that this is a great learning experience for students as the startup industry is growing.”

Since the programme’s inception in 2015, interns from SMU have demonstrated notable traits such as a willingness to learn, professionalism, and the ability to fit into established corporate spaces.

Looking to the future

SMU students are imbued with the qualities of excellence. They are not only equipped with relevant knowledge but also soft and hard skills which are appreciated by many of SMU’s global partners.

Partner companies not only get to work with qualified and competent interns, but also gain access to SMU’s innovation and entrepreneurship network, which includes a community of industry titans in the region. Having partnered with 89 companies across 12 global cities, SMU has established a solid network of connections with businesses covering a diverse range of verticals.

This vibrant community of entrepreneurs and leaders all contribute valuable insights to SMU’s growing network, which ultimately bolsters a healthy marketplace of ideas—perfect for any company looking to grow and enrich their own network.

Joining SMU as a partner company and hosting SMU interns provides so much more than what is traditionally asked from them.

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